In USA’s high-stakes drama series Graceland, now in its third season, the deadly attack on Mike (Aaron Tveit) is affecting everyone in the beach house full of feds. When Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) gets coerced by his own agency into a dangerous cover operation within the Armenian Mafia, his pregnant counterpart, Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito) sets out on her mission to find the money launderer who nearly killed her. And housemates Johnny (Manny Montana), Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren) and Paige (Serinda Swan) each have their own bad guys to pursue and secrets to keep.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Brandon Jay McLaren talked about how much this show has evolved in three seasons, that the vibe on set is nowhere near as dark as the show is on screen, playing the guy who is always having to clean up everyone else’s messes, that things are definitely going to get worse for these guys, whether there’s a point where these guys can push things too far with each other, the moments of levity, being directed by Lucy Liu for an episode, and what he’s most enjoyed about being a part of this show.
Collider: Thinking back to what you were originally told about this show and about who this character would be, how different is it now, from what you thought it might be, by Season 3?
BRANDON JAY McLAREN: That’s a great question. It’s funny, last year, I went back, for whatever reason, and watched the pilot and it’s so different from what this show has become. After you do two seasons, and then you go back to the pilot, you forget how it’s changed. So, I think this show is becoming increasingly smarter and increasingly multi-layered, and you can only achieve that through multiple seasons. You need time with these people, these characters and the storylines, and they compound on one another, things are more complicated, people dig themselves into deeper holes, and conflicts become greater. So, it’s going in a direction that I really, really like, and I think Season 3 just continues on that trajectory.
Each season of this show has gotten darker than the previous season, and it seems like the third season is no exception to that. How has the vibe been on set, this season?
McLAREN: Although this show is dark on screen, it’s not dark, at all, on set. The first season of The Killing got dark, on the set. It was just dreary and drab, and there wasn’t a lot of laughs. That seeped through the crew and impacted everything. With this show, it really hasn’t crossed over to the shooting of the show. We still really enjoy coming to work. We’ve kept a lot of our same crew, from the first two seasons, for the third season, which is always nice because there’s a familiarity that grows and a comradery. So, it hasn’t really crossed over to real life.
In the first two episodes, you get a glimpse into what everybody, except for Jakes, might be involved with this season. Again, he seems like the guy they all turn to, to help clean up the messes that they get into.
McLAREN: He rarely gets listened to, but often is left to pick up the pieces.
Why do you think everybody waits until they’re in trouble before they turn to Jakes? Don’t you think it would make more sense to ask for his advice first?
McLAREN: Yeah, you would think. But, the other way makes for better television. Jakes acts like a fixer, I would say for the first half of the season. In the second half, he really takes a pretty sharp turn. Without giving anything away, it’s pretty drastic, and it may be a result of being a fixer, all the time.
Is Briggs’ comment that, “It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” foreshadowing for how this season will play out?
McLAREN: That’s if you accept Briggs’ premise that things do, in fact, get better. Things will get worse, and they may never get better. There will be some decisions made that may, in fact, be irreversible, which always makes for great cliffhangers for season finales. So, I don’t necessarily accept that it will get better. I think he’s just telling us that to keep morale up. Things do, however, definitely get worse.
These people obviously go through some pretty intense situations, and it really is apparent that it’s having an affect on their relationships with each other. Is there a point where things just get too far and they become irreparable?
McLAREN: I think every season, we get closer and closer to that line and that point of no return. We brush up against it, a few times. Something is going to happen that’s beyond your control, that could push things past that point. Without giving anything away, for Jakes, there will be things that happen that test his ability to do his job effectively, and he has to make really, really difficult decisions.
Are there still able to be moments of levity, or is it all too intense to find much time for that anymore?
McLAREN: No, there are moments of levity. We’re all hyper-aware of that. I feel like any great drama has moments of levity, or else it just becomes too hard to watch. 45 minutes of just pain and suffering is not enjoyable. We’re still trying to entertain people. Me and Manny [Montana] still have our Jakes and Johnny stuff. That stuff will never change ‘cause that’s just how we get when we get together. And there’s some funny stuff with Jakes and Charlie. We definitely try to find moments of levity when we can, without forcing it or detracting from the A-story.
This group goes through intense and crazy things in the cases that they work, but some of the best moments on the show are when they’re bitching at and bickering with each other at home because you can really see what a family they are. Do you prefer the big action moments, or do you like the smaller character moments?
McLAREN: I always prefer the character moments. For me, personally, whether I’m shooting the gun or not shooting the gun, I really don’t care. I’m the guy who’s like, “Whatever you want me to do.” But, I really get excited about the character moments that are steeped in emotion when the stakes are high.
These guys tend to dig themselves into holes, and instead of working their way out of them, they just dig themselves deeper. Would you say that one person or more than one person, will end up in the deepest hole, this season?
McLAREN: Right now, we’re shooting Episode 11, and I still really don’t know exactly what happens to everybody in the next two episodes. I don’t know where everybody is going to end up. After three seasons, the lies start to add upon one another and the holes do get deeper. It becomes increasingly more difficult to dig yourself out, when you’re using lies to cover up lies to cover up other lies. It becomes a pretty tangled web.
What was it like to have Lucy Liu direct an episode of the show?
McLAREN: It was actually surprisingly normal. She’s so normal and so cool. I thought I was going to be more nervous and giddy, but she was actually really, really cool. The episode went by pretty smoothly, and she was lovely. She was so prepared. She gave us all her number, so that if we had any questions, we could call her outside of work. So, I anticipated being more flustered than I actually was. It was a nice surprise.
It must have been a bit intimidating for her to come into a show, in its third season, with a cast and crew that’s very tight with each other.
McLAREN: Yeah, I think it’s like that for any new director. We had a couple of returnees from last year, and even from the first season. I think it was about half and half, with a handful of brand new people. In the third season, in terms of the actors, we’ve all got a pretty solid handle on who these people are. It’s nice when they come in and you get a suggestion or two that you may not have thought of before, or somebody looks at it with fresh eyes, which can add to the performance.
When you see a fellow actor successfully directing an episode of the show, does it inspire you to want to try directing an episode yourself?
McLAREN: Yeah, absolutely! I shadowed Larry Teng, our director/producer, while he prepped the first episodes because he shot them together and I wanted to get a feel for what that would be like. It was such a great opportunity that I had to take advantage of it. When it’s a show that you’re so familiar with yourself, you have a leg up.
Where are the dangers coming from, this season, specially for Jakes?
McLAREN: For all of them, the dangers are coming from the level of dysfunction inside the house. Season 2 ended with Paige, for all intents and purposes, killing Mike by giving him up to a killer. So, we start off the first episode and that’s just another secret that Briggs knows, but I don’t think anybody else knows that happened. It seems like, with every season, we become our own worst enemy, more and more, not to mention that there are all these exterior forces trying to take us down. And as always, Briggs is masterminding everything, pitting everybody against each other for his personal gain and asking people to help him out when things go awry. The thing that’s different this season is that eventually, for some people, enough is going to be enough. You can only play with people so much before they’re like, “Enough, I can’t do this anymore.” Whether that manifests in them fighting back, leaving, or other bad things, that’s yet to be seen.
What have you most enjoyed about the experience of being a part of this show and working with this ensemble?
McLAREN: First of all, getting three seasons of anything is nothing short of a miracle. Especially nowadays, it’s so hard. The TV landscape is so competitive. There are so many shows, and networks and outlets to watch television. So, to have the opportunity to be with a character for that long is really great. And I’ve always liked the way they write for me. I feel like they write me atypically, in that Jakes sometimes feels like the outsider, and at the same time, sometimes he feels like he has his shit together more than anybody else in the house. He’s always walking the line of opposite extremes, which is really cool. There’s comedic, lighter elements, and there’s really heavy dramatic elements. It’s been really, really great, thus far.
As the guy who knows Jakes the best, what would you like to see happen for her, before things with the show are done? Would you like to see him get to whatever his happiest and healthiest place might be?
McLAREN: No, not necessarily. I don’t necessarily believe in happy endings for everything. I would like him to do whatever he feels in the moment that he needs to do, and whatever consequences that brings, I’m okay with it. I just want it to be as real as possible. However that looks, in whatever season that happens, I’m happy with it.
Graceland airs on Thursday nights on the USA Network.